High schoolers chowed down Thursday on taco meat that came from their backyards.
A ribbon-winning steer raised by middle school student Grace Hardeman was born and consumed in the same valley where students live and learn. Teton County School District’s food services manager, Wes Clarke, said he’s trying to take advantage of national Farm-to-School Month this October.
“We decided to embrace it as much as we can,” Clarke said.
A colorful taco bar greeted hungry students for lunch last week.
It’s not just the steer, bought as a 4-H animal and donated by former school board member Patricia Russell, that was on the menu. Kids throughout the school district are enjoying tomatoes, sunflower sprouts and other produce from Vertical Harvest. Twelve cases of beef roasts donated by the Mead Ranch are next up in the lunch line.
“The beef we get is good, but this is certified all natural,” Clarke said. “A lot of money and effort goes to get that kind of certification. Whenever we can get our hands on stuff like this, it’s awesome.”
Ground beef that Clarke can usually afford to buy runs around $2 a pound, while Mead Ranch beef might normally cost $13 to $14 a pound — a clear reason why donations make these kinds of meals possible. Cheaper meats, like chicken and ground beef, are more common on the school lunch menu.
“It’s nice when we get these donations,” Clarke said. “It makes it feasible.”
Clarke expects that the 4-H steer plus the beef roasts should feed each district student about two meals. He’s saving the prime cuts, like New York, tenderloin and rib eye, for a special meal for the district or maybe even to be auctioned.
But it’s more than just having better quality meat in the cafeteria.
“Kids drive by that ranch every single day,” Clarke said. “We like when kids know where their food is coming from.”
Meat aside, the school district is partnering with Vertical Harvest to buy discounted produce during the shoulder season, when fewer restaurants are placing orders with the company. Produce grown in the gardens outside Summit High School and Wilson Elementary School also end up on the menu.
Clarke said kids at Wilson, for example, went out and picked vegetables at recess. The food service manager at that school, Diane Kinley, cut it up and put it in soup “the next day.”
Locally raised and grown food, Clarke said, tends to have more flavor. Since strict school nutrition guidelines make Clarke keep sugar and sodium levels low, he needs to look elsewhere to create a good taste.
“The flavor needs to come from somewhere,” Clarke said. “You can tell when something is homegrown.”
The hard work of the food service doesn’t go unnoticed by the students, who Clarke said are grateful to see something different on the menu. As kids passed through the lunch line on Thursday with heaping plates, Clarke would praise them if they had enough vegetables — “Nice job with the sprouts” — or gently chide them if their plate didn’t look balanced.
“You’ve gotta get some green on there,” Clarke joked with a student as he wished another one a happy birthday.
The local options are highlighted on the menu in green, where Clarke makes sure to say if the food is local that meal.
“It’s interesting to see how they respond to local food,” he said. “They acknowledge it, they say something and they seem to like it. It makes us want to keep doing things like this.”
If you’re a local farmer or rancher who is interested in donating to the district, Clarke said he’s working on a more official way to make giving gifts easy for everyone involved. That might include a tax deduction or routing donations through the fundraising arm of the district, the Teton County Education Foundation.
Clarke also plans to get the school district on an official donation list for 4-H animals. Other local organizations, like St. John’s Medical Center and the Senior Center, can have meat donated to them.